As the Great Recession brought construction to a standstill in 2007, my architectural practice slowed to a stop. I had time to look up from the drafting board and away from the computer screen. I had time to stay home. Instead of drawing places to live, I turned the word “home” over in my head, like a pebble or a bird’s egg found on a morning walk.
An architect makes much of his home, or the press does it for him. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin, Philip Johnson and the Glass House, or Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. Though hardly a celebrity, I could not help seeing myself in my living space. At the time, I lived alone with a cat in a brand new house with a two-car garage, a deck, two acres, a stream in back, and wooded lots to each side. It was a personal slice of the American Dream. I had designed the house as a mail-order model for Country Living, then customized it for myself. A builder friend completed it in 2004, and I moved in the weekend of July 4. A few years later, I was under financial pressure. Home was a good place to be, but I wondered how long I could afford it.
In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in a family of six in new suburban subdivisions in Roslyn, North Syracuse, and Schenectady, New York. My parents bought a new house each time, a small, two-story, wood frame house of traditional design, with a garage, a yard, and a long walk to anything. The neighbors were like us, white and middle class. From 1970, I lived in college dormitories in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in slum apartments there and in New Haven, Connecticut. For nine years, I was a young professional in walk-up tenements in Manhattan and Brooklyn. From 1988, I bought and sold houses in Charlottesville, Virginia. I renovated them, lived in them for a few years, and sometimes made a profit on the sale. When I built the new house and moved to the woods, I reached a residential high point.
I was in my fifties, healthy, with professional achievements under my belt and a sideline in music. I sang tenor in church choirs and amateur choruses. Less typically, I was single, with no family nearby and few social ties. The economic future was worrisome, but I had survived other setbacks. A decade or two of productive life lay ahead. Meanwhile, the enforced leisure would allow me to pursue another interest. I had written poems and stories since high school and published some of these. For newspapers in New York and Charlottesville, I had written stories, book reviews, and articles on architecture, construction, and local history.
I decided to write essays on places where I had lived. Added together, the essays would be a memoir in addresses, with sketches of people I met, the street and city as a setting, and the life of the time. I had no idea how long the project might take or what the result would look like. The essays did not emerge in chronological order, and they did not follow a pattern. Each loomed as a new challenge in what events and details to include, what to omit, how to transform memories through research, and how to account for my own choices. Good writing, it is often said, is an exercise in thinking. The essays proved to be a workout in self-discovery.
Old letters were valuable for checking dates and names. Published books helped in describing cities—Schenectady, Boston, New Haven, and New York—though I tried to set down what I saw with my own eyes. Writing about the apartments and houses I chose, I saw self-confidence, a streak of impatience, and a need to learn about business the hard way. In buying and improving property, I bought into the values of my parents, the construction industry, the American Institute of Architects, and society at large. I made mistakes. Real estate speculation is notoriously risky. Yet it may have put more money in my pocket than wages and fees.
One by one, I sent the essays to literary magazines, which rejected them. Revising, I searched for a style and strove for clarity. At the same time, I wrote two novels, more stories and book reviews, one-act plays, and literary essays, usually a close reading of a book or an author. When I moved to the Charlottesville neighborhood called Belmont, planned in 1891 and thriving as an in-town village, I wrote sixteen short sketches of Belmont.
In 2008, I landed a job with the Louisa County Public Schools as “clerk of the works,” to supervise the construction of a new elementary school. The school was completed early in 2010, and the job ended. Fortunately, my architectural practice revived at this time. I set up a home office, and as before the recession, I drew new houses and renovations. Two historic churches wanted to modernize their social hall and classrooms. Each required selective demolition and some new construction, a puzzle we solved to everyone’s satisfaction.
The writing continued around gainful employment. I was serious about the essays, sketches, and stories, but I approached the process as an experiment. A few years into it, I began to arrange the essays as a series. I added new ones and revised old ones. As a freelance writer, I was not on the staff of a magazine or the faculty of a university, a publishing handicap I ignored. After eight years of composing and tinkering, the project was complete.
Then I discovered that Hermann Hesse beat me to the punch. In his 1931 essay “On Moving to a New House,” he touches briefly on houses he lived in, starting from childhood in Baden-Württemberg. He married three times, so he mentions wives, friends of the couple, where the houses were situated, what he was working on at the time, some delights and disasters, and why he left after a year or many years. In all respects he anticipates my project, and he does so with economy and charm. Hesse’s whimsical style suggests a light hand with the truth, however, as at the end of the essay:
On a spring evening in 1930 when we were sitting in the “Arch” in Zurich, chatting, the conversation came round to houses and to building, and my occasional wish for a house was mentioned. Then my friend B. suddenly laughed aloud and shouted: “You shall have that house.”
This was the house in Montagnola, Switzerland where he lived happily ever after for the next thirty years. The friend was Hans C. Bodmer, who built the house for Hesse’s use. In another century on another continent, my story is less magical. Maybe there is room for both of us.
As a designer of houses, I became involved with the personal lives of my clients and their families, which included children, elderly grandparents, dogs, and cats. Some brought potted plants with them, or favorite shrubs from the yard. The families were like the one I grew up in, infested with taboos, secret relationships, and habits to which they clung without thinking. An architect needs psychological insight, as well as tact.
By watching clients as they bought and sold houses, I saw that a new house did not always enhance their lives. Bigger and fancier, in a neighborhood with taller trees and greener grass, might fail to make them happier. The bickering married couple, who endured the ordeals of design and construction only to divorce a year after moving in, were stock characters in this drama. Real estate agents are familiar with the serial home buyer, ostensibly in search of a better house or neighborhood, but really in search of a better life.
I was guilty of the same acting out, but I plead extenuating circumstances. Exposed to the lifestyle of the upper crust but lacking their means, architects spend too much on housing. We justify it as a professional expense, but the psychology may be simpler. We imitate, and we get caught up in the competition for social status. Living space and location are potent markers. By age sixty, I was forced to stop playing the real estate game.
I love the physical aspect of houses, their geometry and sense of space. Their design and construction are fascinating, like putting together a complex, walk-in, three-dimensional puzzle. My adventure in architecture has been rewarding in the sense of skills learned and projects completed. My personal search for home was short-sighted. After all my speculative real estate investments, house renovations, and changes of address, I came to rest in an old stucco cottage where the floors creak, the plaster is lumpy, and nothing is level or plumb.
Faced with competition from younger architects and the need to upgrade drafting equipment and software, a costly investment I saw no way to recoup, I let my practice wind down. Over the years, unemployment had given me a taste for freedom, and I had saved enough to provide a small income. Retirement looked like a safe bet, and I took it.
Horace in the Ode 1,11 tells a girl named Leuconoë: “carpe diem.” The phrase “seize the day” became a literary staple, echoed in Robert Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” the novel by Saul Bellow, and so on. The rest of Horace’s line, “Trust in tomorrow least,” invites the reader to abandon herself to pleasure. But poet was a gentle drunk, not a wild hedonist. He retired to a villa near Tibur, a farm a day’s journey from Rome, to live in comfortable poverty. The Ode 3,1 ends in the stanza:
Why should I rear a hall to stir
Jealous looks by its lofty scale?
To such rich burdens I prefer
My humble Sabine vale.
What I did not count on was the loss of identity. Other occupations stamp a person for life—priest, lawyer, soldier, farmer, teacher—but can you stop drawing and remain an architect? I looped back forty years to the moment I graduated from college, before I went to architecture school. I read now as I did then, with no plan, all the time, subject to bursts of enthusiasm. Contemporary American fiction writers claim first place, but classics in French demand attention, and Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, and short story writers from all places and times. And essayists.
Michel de Montaigne understood the question of identity. Married, the father of six children, one of whom survived to adulthood, he wrote his Essays as a minutely detailed self-portrait, or a series of attempts to define the self. Along the way, the self included a Frenchman, a Gascon, a royal counsellor, the mayor of Bordeaux, a landed aristocrat, and the proud owner of a library in a tower. Was he an egotist? Montaigne also wrote about his friend Étienne de la Boétie, who died young, in terms of an intimate bond or joining of minds, what we would call a soul mate. He wrote about customs, religion, politics, food, fashion, the education of children, and more—the whole range of human experience.
Is Montaigne is too remote in time and culture to serve as a model? He withdrew from public life, especially the religious strife in France in the sixteenth century. He praises retirement in the classical sense, an aristocratic determination to live well and above it all. To the market-driven American ideal of retirement as a leisure lifestyle for active adults—a round of golf and drinks on the deck—Montaigne poses a counterweight, a cultivated attempt to be whole.
The chateau, the library, and the Greek and Latin quotations are props, though. The illustrious past illuminates the present the way stars light up the night sky. We make the best of what we have, who we are, and where we end up. In the place I call home, I am still trying to make it.